hen people describe what they most want out of life, happiness is almost always on the list, and very often it is at the top of the list. When people describe what they want for their children, they frequently mention health and wealth, occasionally they mention fame or success—but they almost always mention happiness. People will claim that whether their kids are wealthy and work in some prestigious occupation or not, “I just want my kids to be happy.” Happiness appears to be one of the most important goals for people, if not the most important. But what is it and what makes us happy?
“Happiness,” or subjective wellbeing is a process that results from certain internal and external causes and in turn influences our behaviour and our physiological state. For stoics, “happiness” or “flourishing” was the culmination of human endeavour also, known as eudaimonia, and the ultimate end being the “living in agreement with nature.”
Wow so far so good, but what does happiness mean to you?
Philosophers debated the nature of happiness for thousands of years, but scientists have identified three major types of happiness:
There is no single key, no magic wand, no secret pill—happiness or high subjective wellbeing is achieved by combining several different important elements. But there is one thing that everybody has in common: the physical body and the principles of biochemistry that are directly linked to our wellbeing. By enhancing the production of these chemicals in our brains, we can experience improved mood, higher self-esteem and satisfaction and ultimately experience happiness.
The question is how?
As the saying goes, a healthy mind thrives in a healthy body. A highly functioning biochemistry builds a strong foundation for wellbeing, especially mental wellbeing. And so is the opposite: a malnourished, sleep-deprived, “over-active” or “under-active” body cannot support the thriving mind as physiological, survival-oriented needs need to be met first.
Increasingly more research demonstrates that wellbeing of the physical body enhances emotional wellbeing and healing. Could this be the reason why yoga became and stayed mainstream for so long?
Feeling happy is not only pleasant but is also a useful feeling, for instance, in social situations, because it helps us to be friendly and collaborative, thus promoting our positive relationships. Over time these effects add up to tangible effects on wellbeing, and in turn again to good mental and physical health. You decide, happiness flywheel or depression doomloop. In fact, each emotional experience has effects on cognition, behaviour and the people around us. Learn more on inflammation and depression here with our expert Dr. Albers.
Emotions don’t just feel good or bad, they also boost our health. If we get a bunch of neurons firing together for positive experiences, that will build new neural structures. Can you think of an important moment in your life that didn’t involve strong feelings?
In fact, it might be hard to recall a time when you didn´t feel at all. Given how saturated human life is with feelings and given how profoundly feelings affect us, it is not surprising that much theorizing and research has been devoted to uncovering how we can „optimize“ our feelings or “emotional experiences” as they are referred to in psychological research.
Dr. William Walsh suggests in his book “Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain” that nutrient imbalance can cause mental disorders by disrupting gene expression of proteins and enzymes, crippling the body’s protection against environmental toxins and changing brain levels of key neurotransmitters. Meanwhile, nutrient balance can do the opposite: bring the body into balance, support gut and brain health.
Embodied intelligence theories suggest a further interesting thought: the mind is not only intimately connected in a vast and intricate interrelationship with the body, but the body also profoundly influences the mind – thus our cognition. Just remember the time when you were nervous or restless, and “used your body” to decompress and destress by exercising, power walking, stretching or getting a massage. It helps to calm the mind and relieve emotional pain.
If we agree that life happens through our mind and the mind emerges from both the body and the consciousness and subconsciousness, all being one, then why don’t we use our body more skilfully to enhance our mental wellbeing?
In her book, “How the Body Knows Its Mind,” Prof. Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago writes, alongside many peer researchers:
“Our body is far from a passive machine, carrying the outputs and orders our brain sends about how to act. As research has shown, people's bodies hack their brains. How we move and even contort our body has an impact on our thoughts, the decisions we make, and even our preferences…”
Indeed, our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by our experiences in the physical world. And substantial evidence demonstrates a dazzlingly complex interrelationship of mind and physiology, one in which each demonstrably affects the other.
A University of Texas study found that HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) can change your brain by boosting a protein called BDNF that’s involved with cell repair, cognitive function and mood regulation. Low levels of this protein are associated with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. As the neuroscientist and long-term meditation practitioner Rick Hanson puts it:
"First, when your brain changes, your mind changes. Everyday examples include the effects of caffeine, antidepressants, lack of sleep and having a cold. More extreme examples: concussion, stroke, brain damage and dementia. Without a brain, you can’t have a mind.
Second, when your mind changes, your brain changes. Temporary changes include the activation of different neural circuits or regions when you have different kinds of thoughts, feelings, moods, attention, or even a sense of self
Third, the mind and brain co-arise interdependently. The brain makes the mind while the mind makes the brain while the brain makes the mind... They are thus properly understood as one unified system."
A large amount of literature shows that physical exercise improves mood disorders, mainly depression and anxiety. Exercise is recognized as a non-pharmacological tool for prevention and treatment of mood disorders but also diseases such as diabetes mellitus or hypertension – illnesses that rob happiness from you.
In a recent study with 100 young adult women, HIT training protocols have been shown to improve depressive symptoms but not anxiety levels. As interval training protocols are performed at high intensities studies investigating the physiological and psychological mechanisms related to intense exercise and depression constitute a fundamental step towards the broad use of HIT protocols such as the AURUM strength training as an alternative non-pharmacological treatment of depression.
Amen Clinics, one of the world leaders in applying brain imaging science to treat emotional issues such as anxiety, depression and cognitive problems such as memory issues, Alzheimer’s Disease, and dementia, claims that exercise helps not only decrease anxiety and depression but also ward off Alzheimer’s and memory problems and enhance the brain’s ability to repair itself.
Dr. David Sinclair from the Harvard Medical School suggests that “While there are benefits to mild forms of exercise, high intensity strength training is where exercise for longevity hits full stride. Even more so when you’re older. To engage our longevity genes fully, the intensity does matter.”
Dr. Rhonda Patrick, an American biochemist who has done extensive research on ageing, cancer, and nutrition, suggests that exercise may help treat and prevent depression by:
Kate Hefferon from the University of East London laid out an elegant case for the body's role in the field, primarily as a bottom-up experience (i.e. we feel more positive via a better relationship with the body) but also to some degree as a top-down experience (i.e. more positive emotion increases longevity and impacts health).
Exercise is not a universal remedy, but it’s a non-pharmacological tool that can work well in conjunction to therapy, create impactful positive emotions and positively influence our cognition in short- and long-term.
While working out might seem like the last thing you want to do when suffering from depression, give it a try to give the happiness flywheel the first push.
How could the 6 Minute workout present a doable weekly routine and help you engage your body for a burst of positive emotions?